It is too early to read too much into Crystal Palace’s form and make judgments about where they will finish come May next year. Last season stands as a warning sign for the Palace hopefuls; the Eagles were flying high at the same point last year and were just a point off the top four.
They maintained their early season form up until Christmas when they were level with fourth place Tottenham only to see themselves tailspinning into a dramatic fall and eventually finished 15th at the season’s end. But things seem to be a bit different this time round for Alan Pardew’s men.
Last night’s draw against Everton stretched their unbeaten run in the Premier League to five games. In the hostile confines of Goodison Park, Palace held their own against the pace-setting Toffees, and were unlucky to come away with all three points. They had one of the league’s best defences on the ropes, and part of Palace’s plan to upset the order at Goodison was their front four that, on occasions, proved too hot to handle for Everton.
Now firmly established as part of the Premier League’s middle class clubs alongside their opponents last night, Southampton, Leicester City and West Ham, Palace look to have the tools to mount a serious European push this term.
Their unique attack, bolstered by the summer arrivals of Christian Benteke and Andros Townsend which offset the departure of Yannick Bolasie, has a ruthless sense about it. Goals might be a measure of any team’s attacking capacity, and Palace haven’t scored that many to blow away the league, but the pace, trickery, creativity, directness and hustle of their front four have made their middle class counterparts take note.
Jason Puncheon, who has been the creative hub of the side, has already made more chances than any other player in the Premier League. Wilfried Zaha is one of the best dribblers in the league; the 23-year-old has the second most dribbles per game thus far and adds that extra bit of trickery and pace to Palace’s attack.
Throw Benteke, who managed an acceptable goals per minute ratio at Liverpool last season despite being an outcast, into the mix and Palace suddenly have a finisher-par-excellence. The Belgian has a great header, as his goal last night showed, and is possibly the only other top quality striker outside the top six elite apart from Romelu Lukaku. Despite considerably emptying Palace’s coffers, Benteke is a guarantee of goals, and an unsettling presence up top for any defence.
Then there is Townsend with his remarkable propensity to shoot from any possible angle and taking on players at pace. The former Newcastle and Spurs man has added directness to Palace’s attack. The Eagles have registered the seventh most shots per game this season, more than Everton and Arsenal.
Palace’s maverick style of play suits their front four to a T; their buildup play is fast and focused on getting the ball into advanced areas quickly. When their forward passes tend to be more central, Benteke’s aerial prowess brings his team-mates into play with midfield runners like James McArthur making movements into the box. When play is progressed through the sides by the full-backs, the one v one ability of both Zaha and Townsend stretches defences, while Puncheon lurks around the centre to support.
Such variable attacking play sets Palace apart from their supposed rivals for the last European qualification spot, and Pardew has seemingly struck the right balance by bringing in a mix of the best off-elite attackers to complement the ones like Zaha and Puncheon already in the side.
Ronald Koeman talked about a style of play that mixes pressing football with a more direct approach but in Lukaku, Everton have essentially only one route to goal whereas Southampton have often been seen found wanting a finishing touch to their measured approach play. West Ham’s leaky defence has them sat in the relegation zone, while Leicester have blown hot and cold this season and not looked entirely convincing to even be considered contenders for European places.
All of which leaves Pardew’s Palace in a great position to pounce. There is no dependence on the likes of Connor Wickham, Bakary Sako and Dwight Gayle: players with low ceilings who tend to be frustratingly inconsistent. With Benteke, Puncheon, Zaha and Townsend making light of Bolasie’s loss, this season could be the one where the Eagles finally make their presence in the Premier League felt with European qualification.
However, the caveat of thinking too far ahead too soon remains and despite all that has gone right for Palace this season, they only need to look back to 2015/16 to have a sense of why early season form and optimism mean little at the season’s end.